To my teachers: A Reflection on 55 Years of Learning the Historian’s Craft (1964/65 – 2020) Part 1

Peter Carey in Javanese dress with his landlady, Ibu Kusumobroto (Raden Ayu Sriningdyah), her son, Raden Mas Widuro (Mas Wid) (extreme left), and PC’s late first wife, Raden Ayu Koesmarlinah (1940-2000) in the Tejokusuman, 1972. Foto koleksi Peter Carey. 


My young friend and colleague, Akhlis Syamsal Qomar (Madiun), asked me to reflect on how I had learnt my craft as an historian and who were the main influences on my intellectual development in the service of Clio. This is actually a big ask and I can only make a modest beginning. First let me start with a bit of background because my interest in history and things historical started a long way back—almost as soon as I started reading historical novels when I was at my Preparatory School (SD)—Temple Grove, near Uckfield in East Sussex (1955-61).

I was always interested in history. I have a very vivid imagination and devoured the historical novels about the Crusades by the French novelist and first woman ever elected as one of the French literary ‘immortals’ to the Académie française,  Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-87). I also have a very pictorial imagination—it is almost as though I can see things in 3-D, like a film-script unrolling before my eyes. I believe the past never dies but is a submerged presence in all our lives. Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, 1913) is a touchstone for me here with its ability to resurrect complete worlds with their sounds, smells and feel. Proust wrote that everyone who lives has an appel or a ‘calling’—mine was certainly history. I could have also been a filmmaker or a novelist, but I prefer real-life memoirs rather than novels because for me life is stranger than fiction. I also firmly believe in William Faulkner’s (1897-1962) famous phrase that ‘the past isn’t dead—it isn’t even past!’

My first training as an historian – Winchester College (1961-65)

My ‘baptism of fire’ as a budding historian was really at the age of 15-16 when I was at my High School—one of the UK’s so-called ‘public schools’, Winchester College—where I had a very remarkable history teacher. His name was Mark Stephenson—and I dedicated my 1992 book the British in Java, 1811-1816; A Javanese Account (Oxford: OUP) to him (‘For Mark Stephenson, my history master at Winchester, who first inspired me with an interest in chronicles’). He did this by teaching us to write essays on the ‘Time of Troubles’ or civil war  (1139-54) during the reign of the English King, Stephen (r.1135-54), known as the ‘Anarchy’, by using contemporary Latin chronicles: namely (1) the Gesta Regis Stephani, a mid-12th century Latin chronicle by an anonymous author (certainly a cleric, probably the Bishop of Bath), who was very pro-Stephen; and (2) the Historia Novella by William of Malmesbury (1095-1143), the greatest English historian of the 12th century, who was very critical of the king and in favour of his main opponent.

My ‘baptism of fire’ as a budding historian was really at the age of 15-16 when I was at my High School—one of the UK’s so-called ‘public schools’, Winchester College—where I had a very remarkable history teacher.

Obviously, we were not required to read the chronicles in the original Latin (that would have been impossible for me because my knowledge of Latin was poor), but we were expected to read the English translations carefully and come to our own conclusions citing the original texts. We were not allowed to sneak away and consult the key secondary texts like Dom David Knowles (1896-1974), Regius Professor of History at Cambridge (1954-63), magisterial history of the English church (The Monastic Order in England, 943-1216 [1949]), which had just been republished (1963) when I was studying at Winchester. If we did that, our essays would be torn up and thrown in the wastepaper basket. Actually, tutorial sessions with Mark were quite forbidding. For a start he looked like a version of Heathcliff from Emily Brontë’s famous 1847 novel, played by Laurence Olivier, with a great shock of black hair and piercing eyes:

Laurence Olivier (post-1947, Sir Laurence, 1907-89) as Heathcliff in the 1939 Samuel Goldwyn Hollywood film of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights. Photo: Wikipedia.

But his tutorials were also very invigorating. This was a one-on-one tutorial. We went to his study in ‘College’—the oldest (14th century) part of the school in a medieval building to talk about medieval history (!)—and he would usually have a tray laid for his dinner. If one did well and produced an essay based on one’s own reading of the original Latin texts (in English translation) with sensible conclusions one would be invited to share a part of his meal. If one tried to cheat by using secondary published works, then your essay was destined for the wastepaper basket! For a 15-year-old, this was a real ‘baptism of fire’, and it prepared me really well for dealing with Javanese chronicles relating to the Java War and the equally forbidding—Javanese Heathcliff—figure of Prince Diponegoro (1785-1855).

Studying medieval English history and the era when the throne of England was contested between an inept king, Stephen, and the Empress Matilda, daughter of the previous ruler, Henry I (r. 1100-35), was also a very good preparation for understanding the murderous intricacies of Javanese history and events like the First Javanese Succession War (1704-08) during which Amangkurat III’s bloody rule (1703-1708) was contested by his uncle (paklik) Pakubuwono I (r. 1704-19); or the bloody events in the Yogyakarta court when Diponegoro was coming to manhood (1808-1812) and the court was torn between the factions around the Kerajan (Raja Putra Narendra – future HB III) and the Kasepuhan (Sultan Sepuh/HB II) split in the Yogyakarta court during the reign of the Second Sultan (1792-1810/1811-12/1826-28).

So, this was what I took away from my Win. Coll. (Winchester College) education, which in many other respects was a purgatory for me because there was a great deal of violence (institutionalised bullying) and I was a shy and retiring lad. But for my evolution as an historian it was really massive—a foundation for my later training and career a Javanese historian as it really awakened me to the importance of respecting and using primary sources. Nothing I came across subsequent to that in Oxford, Leiden, Cornell or Yogyakarta really matched that.

But for my evolution as an historian it was really massive—a foundation for my later training and career a Javanese historian as it really awakened me to the importance of respecting and using primary sources.

Growing up in post-colonial Burma

I certainly think my upbringing in Burma counted for much in prompting my academic interest in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. My mother and father’s families both had a long association with Asia. My mother, Wendy (1915-2006), was born in Shanghai and grew up in China between 1915 and 1935. My father, Thomas Brian Carey (1910-70), meanwhile, although born in Liverpool, hailed from a family with a famous ancestor, William Carey (1761-1834), who was a Baptist missionary for 40 years in Kolkata/West Bengal and oversaw the translation of the Bible into 27 different Indian languages and dialects.

When we eventually returned to the ‘old country’ (UK) in 1955-56, all our close family friends had that shared experience in Asia, indeed they were nearly all old ‘Burma hands’. I grew up in a late colonial setting. I was also very lucky to win an English-Speaking Union (ESU) scholarship to undertake graduate studies at Cornell which then had a simply superb Southeast Asia program with plenty of opportunities to study SE Asian languages, Indonesian in particular. It was there in Ithaca in Upper State New York that I began my study of Malay/Bahasa there with native speakers. That year was also the start of my specific focus on Indonesia and I have written about this at length elsewhere.[2]

The Invisible Man – Oxford, Man and Boy (1966-2008)

Actually I was in Oxford—man and boy—for 42 years from 1966-2008, first as an undergraduate reading for an Honours Degree in Modern History at Trinity College (1966-69), then as a graduate student (1973-75) (after two years in Indonesia living in Jakarta and the Tejokusuman, 1971-73); then as a Research Fellow at Magdalen College (1974-79), when I finished my PhD thesis on ‘Pangeran Dipanagara and the Making of the Java War, 1825-30’ (supervised [1974-75] and examined by Merle Ricklefs, November 1975), and then as Fellow and Tutor at my old college Trinity, for the best part of 30 years (1979-2008). I eventually retired from Oxford in October 2008, after teaching there for 35 years, to settle permanently in Indonesia. This was also seminal for my development as an historian. We had well over 100 historians on the books of the History Faculty – amongst which were 90 permanent academic staff (of whom I was one), and fifteen statutory professors and readers (Assistant Professor). It was very impressive. Obviously the downside was that there was almost zero interest in Southeast Asian (still less Indonesian) history and I never had an Indonesian student who came to study for a PhD in history, but this was made up for in part by wonderful colleagues whom I found really impressive in their own fields. I just could not imagine what it would be like—as at present in one well known university here in Indonesia—to be in a Faculty full of plagiarists and sejarawan proyek-proyek! I would not want to continue as an historian in that situation, certainly not in an academic career—I would be a high school (SMA) history teacher!

 ~~~To Be Continued~~~


* Artikel To my teachers: A Reflection on 55 Years of Learning the Historian’s Craft (1964/65 – 2020) ini, bagian pertama dari 4 seri yang akan dipublikasikan di setiap hari Senin.

[1] Whatsapp Mas Akhlis Syamsal Qomar, 12 June 2020, reads: ‘Sugeng enjing Prof. Semoga Prof Peter dan keluarga senantiasa diberikan kesehatan di tengah pandemic sekarang.Jika boleh sharing terkait perjalanan panjang sebagai seorang sejarawan dan intelektual publik yang diakui dedikasinya, kiranya siapa yang banyak membentuk dan mempengaruhi karier akademik Panjenengan sampai sekarang?'[‘Good morning, Professor, Here’s hoping that Prof. Peter and his family will always be given good health in the midst of the current pandemic. If you are agreeable, could you share something about your long journey as an historian and public intellectual whose dedication is recognised. So who exactly has shaped and influenced your academic career to date?’].

[2] See Peter Carey, “Menyusuri Jalan yang Jarang Dilalui, Sebuah Otobiografi Singkat”, in FX Domini BB Hera (ed.), Urip iku Urub; Untaian Persembahan 70 Tahun Profesor Peter Carey (Jakarta: Penerbit Buku Kompas, 2019), pp.21-26.

Peter Carey
Peter Carey, yang lahir di Myanmar 30 April 1948, adalah Fellow Emeritus Trinity College, Oxford, dan Adjunct Profesor FIB-UI (Fakultas Ilmu Pengetahuan Budaya, Universitas Indonesia). Karya yang lahir dari sentuhan tangannya antara lain : Burma: The Challenge of Change in a Divided Society (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997); The Power of Prophecy; Prince Dipanagara and the End of an Old Order in Java, 1785-1855. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2007 (terjemahan dalam Bahasa Indonesia, Kuasa Ramalan; Pangeran Diponegoro dan Akhir Tatanan Lama di Jawa, 1785-1855. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2012); The British in Java, 1811-1816. A Javanese Account. Oxford: OUP Press, 1992. Terjemahan Inggris di Jawa. Jakarta: PBK, 2017). Kemudian beberapa ulasan mengenai dirinya antara lain : buku Urip iku Urub; 40 Tahun Sarjana Lelono di Negara Leluhur. Tulisan yang dipersembahkan kepada Peter Carey untuk HUT ke-70. FX Domini BB Hera (peny.). Jakarta: PBK, Oktober 2018.